Monday, October 31, 2005

Sirocco (1951)

Posted by Rand

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lee J. Cobb and Marta Toren.
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, whose other noirs include Conflict (1945), Possessed, and High Wall (both 1947). Written by A.I. Bezzerides, Hans Jacoby, and Joseph Kessel from Kessel's novel, COUP DE GRACE. Bezzerides has a long noir resume with writing credits on noir classics like cult fave Desert Fury (1947), Thieves' Highway (1949), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Jacoby's only other noir, maybe, was Carnival Story (1954). Kessel wrote the French dialogue for the interesting Act of Love (1953). Photographed by Burnett Guffey, with an even longer noir resume than Bezzerides' including, among many others, Night Editor, Framed, Johnny O'Clock, In a Lonely Place, Scandal Sheet, and Human Desire.

SIROCCO opens in Damascus, Syria circa 1925 with a group of French reporters being taken to the headquarters of the Emir Hassan who is the leader of Syrian rebels who seek to oust the French. After his harangue the scene moves to French military headquarters where various local "businessmen", whose businesses are of dubious legality, are waiting for a meeting with Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb). Feroud is a highly principled French officer who desires peace with the Syrians and is determined to end the gun-running trade as a means to achieve his goal. The apparently smartest, and least perturbed, of Feroud's guests is an American named Harry Smith (Humphrey Bogart). He offers no complaint or argument with Feroud's demands, in contrast to the others who whine their displeasure and beg relief from the edicts handed down. Feroud is no fool and recognizes Smith as an adversary worthy of respect.

Smith, we soon learn, is a major supplier of arms to the Syrian rebels led by the Emir Hassan. We also note, in his first meeting with them, that he is not as self-assured with them as he was with the French military. The Syrians are, in fact, as contemptuous of him as he is of the French. He is useful to them only as a means to an end and if his end arrives as a result of their dealings, no tears will be shed. Smith is confident, however, that he can fool the French, make himself invaluable to the Syrians, and continue to smuggle arms into Damascus. His position offers him the possibility of great profit as he seems to have connections which the Syrians cannot gain themselves.

Feroud and Smith find themselves in the same cafe that evening, Feroud in the company of his mistress, Violette (very capably played by the Swedish actress, Marta Toren). Violette is a spoiled and selfish lover and it is clear she is not pleased at living in a war zone. Other French officers are dining in the cafe and are targeted by a flower peddler who plants a bomb at the officers' table. The resulting explosion and confusion brings Smith and a frightened and disoriented Violette together. When Feroud returns to collect his mistress, he finds her with Smith's coat on. He is forced to thank Smith for looking after her. Smith determines to steal the mistress of a French officer and arranges to have an expensive bauble "returned" to her, assuming her cupidity would require her to accept it. Misogyny is not unknown in Bogart's films and the Syrian who supplies the bauble explains to Smith's partner, Nasir (Nick Dennis), how the affair will go. "Each one is different. With each new girl a mist comes before the eyes. Ah, the pleasure you'll have- before the mist rises and you find out she's like all the others."
Violette accepts the bauble from Nasir, but returns it to Smith when he shows up to accept his reward. This scene is quite remarkable in that Violette answers the door clad only in robe and towel. She removes the towel from her head and the scene is played with her hair wet and dissheveled. It's hard to imagine a Hollywood actress doing the same.

The principals meet again that evening in the same cafe, not too seriously damaged from the bombing, and Violette tweaks Feroud about Smith's having filet mignon while she must settle for lamb stew. She sees Smith as a man of influence who can have things she, even as the mistress of a high-ranking French officer, cannot, and that attracts her to him. The fact that his supposed prestige and influence did nothing to prevent him and his partner ("If you eat with the French, you get what the French get!") from nearly being killed in the cafe bombing does not alter her estimation of him. The evening ends with Feroud slapping her to the floor when she reveals Smith's visit that afternoon, with the implication of some rough sex following. Violette than shows up at Smith's apartment to find a way out of Damascus. In another remarkable scene, Violette remarks on what many movie fans have noticed about Bogart. "You are so ugly. How can a man be so ugly and yet so handsome?"
The affair proceeds apace, as does the approaching collision of the arms shipment, Col. Feroud, Feroud's superior, Gen. La Salle (Everett Sloane), a somewhat pompous martinet whose humanity is brought to the surface by Feroud, and the fly in the ointment, Balukjiaan (Zero Mostel), one of those we met in Feroud's office who has decided to betray Harry for profit after ferreting out how the gun shipments are disguised. Events move quickly as Harry discovers the French are on to him and moves quickly to get himself and Violette out of Syria to a life of quiet ease (and shopping) in Cairo. Feroud has discovered Violette's deceit but has decided to sacrifice himself to achieve a ceasefire. Harry's escape is aborted by the French and he is driven back to them on a desperate hope to free himself from the noose by gaining the release of Feroud from the rebels. Smith, Violette, and Feroud each suffer loss in a satisfyingly noir finish.

The reviews for this film are almost universally bad, both at the time of releas and today. Bogart himself called it "a stinker". The reviews also seem generally to accuse SIROCCO of being a pale imitation of Casablanca, with Harry Smith simply a renamed Rick Blaine. This is like complaining about John Wayne making another western in which he plays John Wayne again. And it's not even true. SIROCCO is very different from CASABLANCA and one wonders sometimes what movie some of these people were actually watching. One sets SIROCCO in North Africa, like CASABLANCA, when it actually takes place in the Middle East. Another has Bogart playing a "casino owner", like CASABLANCA, when actually he is a smuggler, there are no casinos in evidence. Smith himself lacks the self assurance of Blaine, he is noticeably uneasy with the Syrian he deals with, and when he learns of his betrayal, at a time when he has succeeded in attaining the company of the beautiful Violette, he is quick to dump her in his sweaty frenzy to get himself clear of Damascus. And, though she manages to attach herself to him as they attempt to flee, he again abandons her, this time successfully, when the French catch up to them. Many of the critics seem to want Smith to be a hero like Blaine, but the lack of a protagonist who is clearly sympathetic is what puts SIROCCO solidly in the noir firmament. As does Burnett Guffey's cinematography. The alleys and caverns of nighttime Damascus are exotic perfection in black and white.

SIROCCO is not one of Bogart's best movies. It's not his best noir. But it's an effort worth taking a look at, especially today with the neo-colonial war taking place next door to Syria and Damascus' own involvement in political intrigue and assassination in Lebanon. And, placed against other films made in the noir style in 1951, it would easily rate in the top ten.

And Gary George, inane and superficial though he may be, agrees with me. So there. (Gary, who cares what a mouldering corpse of a director thinks anyway?)


Monday, October 24, 2005

The Big Combo (1955)

Posted by Karen

My pick for this week's NOTW is The Big Combo, one of my favorite - and most watched - noirs. Of all my favorites, it has more fascinating and memorable characters than almost any other. The heart of the film centers on a triangle between Mr. Brown, a hood played with venomous glee by Richard Conte, his weak-willed society girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), and Leonard Diamond (Wallace’s then-husband Cornel Wilde), a police detective who is driven both by his obsession for Susan and his determination to bring Mr. Brown to justice. Ultimately, Diamond gets his man and the girl, but it is the characters, rather than the plot, that make this film so unforgettable.

We start with Conte’s Brown - a vicious, conscienceless, unflappable mobster whose power and demeanor are hinted at in the film’s first few minutes. Brown’s girl, Susan, is seen running through the bowels of a boxing arena, chased by two of Brown’s henchmen. When they catch her, they insist on returning her to Brown, who is watching the match above. “Mr. Brown is mad already,” one of the hoods tells her. “We lost you for two minutes.” Brown himself illustrates his persona in a lengthy speech that ends in his pronouncement that “first is first and second is nobody.” He not only holds a lofty opinion of himself, but a low view of most others. In one encounter with Diamond, he declines to address the cop directly, instead telling an underling, “Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotels make better money than that.” And, later, he contemptuously browbeats his second-in-command: “Go to bed. Stay there. You been sick, understand - sick. And if they take you to police headquarters, shoot yourself in the head. It’ll make everything a lot simpler.” The second-in-command that Brown addresses is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), an aging mobster with a hearing impediment who was once Brown’s boss. Now, McClure is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the outfit - he garners respect neither from Brown nor from Brown’s other underlings, Fanty (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) - in one scene, McClure objects when Fanty charges him a fee for the privilege of working Diamond over. “Didn’t Mr. Brown pay you?” McClure asks. And Fanty replies, “You’re not Mr. Brown. For Mr. Brown, I’d snatch a judge from Superior Court for a chocolate soda.”

Diamond and Susan Lowell are only slightly less fascinating than Brown and his band of miscreants. We learn early on that Diamond is in love with Susan, that he spent money out of his own meager salary to trail her around the country for six months - yet, we find soon after that she isn’t even aware of his existence. We also discover that, despite his seemingly upstanding, beyond-reproach countenance, he has an on-again, off-again relationship with a showgirl who winds up getting murdered in Diamond’s apartment in a case of mistaken identity. “I treated her like a pair of gloves,” Diamond tearfully admits after her body is discovered. “When I was cold, I called her up.” As for Susan, her beauty belies a lack of self-esteem and direction, and she is sexually drawn to Brown despite his possessiveness and sadistic treatment. She is obviously miserable and, like his other underlings, even calls him “Mr. Brown” - yet, she has been with him for four years.

Small but equally memorable characters included Brown’s long-estranged wife, Alicia (played by Helen Walker who here, after years of alcohol abuse, looked far older than her 35 years); Bettini (Ted deCorsia), a shipman who is able to tie Brown to his wife’s disappearance and who resignedly expects to be killed for the knowledge; and Nils Dreyer (John Hoyt), a hard-boiled antiques dealer who coolly refuses to reveal to Diamond his connection with Mr. Brown (“Because I have lunch with him, that is not a crime,” Dreyer says with amusement. “I have lunch with anybody - I’m democratic. I’ll even have lunch with you. Ha ha.”)

Aside from its fascinating characters, The Big Combo features shadowy cinematography by John Alton, a great melancholy jazzy score by David Raksin, and direction from Joseph Lewis, who also helmed such noir gems as Gun Crazy and My Name is Julia Ross. It’s a must-see - and see it over and over again.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Seventh Victim (1943)

This week’s Film Noir of the Week is Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943). Last week, Don Malcom wrote about one of my favorites The Big Sleep which many believe may not be a film noir at all, while The Seventh Victim is almost never classified as a film noir when it’s a fine example of the film style.

The film was created by Lewton based only on a title given to him by RKO. It was directed by Mark Robson (his first film as director) and stars Tom Conway (playing the same guy he played, and got killed as, in The Cat People!); Jean Brooks (The Leopard Man); Isabel Jewel (The Leopard Man); Kim Hunter (her first film role) and Hugh Beaumont (Railroaded!). Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (Blood on the Moon, Cat People) and music by Roy Webb (Out of the Past, and many other films noir).

As you can see the film boasts a very good cast and film makers who worked on many classic period films noir. So why isn’t this film “noir”? Who knows? People just didn’t go out and make noir back in the 1940s, they just came out that way. I would be interested in seeing what others think about this film.

I watched the film a few times on DVD this week and couldn’t get it out of my head. I’ve never seen it before or read much about it. Apparently, when Val Lewton was asked what the film was about he said, “Death is good.” The film is filled with a bunch of sad lonely people. Even the bit-part secretaries in the film have drunken fathers or great regrets in their lives. This is not a happy movie but one that makes you think. And one that makes you think “How the hell did this film get made?” In my opinion, it’s brilliant. I enjoy Cat People a little more because the story for The Seventh Victim doesn’t hold up when you ask key questions about the plot. I wrote a long (probably too long) synopsis for the film below, but my recommendation to you if you haven’t seen it is to watch it first. There are a few scenes in the film, not to mention the ending, which knocked my socks off.

A few things to think about when you’re watching: Notice how Mary and Gregory fall in love and seem to give up looking for Jacqueline half-way through. Only the poet Jason seems to care what happened to her.

The film appears to be a B-movie with more literary and satanic references than you could imagine.

Jason, the poet sitting under “Dante’s” feet.
The doomed Mimi (a reference to the prostitute in the opera La bohème?)
The number 7 room with a noose.

The film tells the story of a young woman, Mary, away at school who finds out about her sister’s disappearance. Jacqueline Gibson, who has always talked about suicide, is Mary’s only relative. Mary finds out later that Jacqueline "Had a feeling about life. That it wasn’t worth living unless you could end it."

Mary returns to New York City and attempts to find her. She finds an apartment above a restaurant (Dante’s Restaurant) that her sister rented and talks the old couple that owns it into opening the door. Before she enters, she spies Mimi, a sick coughing woman who lives down the hall. The only thing in the empty room is a chair and a hanging noose hung ready above it. Later, she meets a private detective at the police station who, after being threatened not to by another agency looking for her, decides to help her. Meanwhile, Mary visits the morgue where she receives a tip that someone else was there looking for her. She visits lawyer Gregory Ward who she eventually finds out is Jacqueline’s secret husband. They agree to team up and find her sister but first they have dinner and it seems like they are falling in love.

The diminutive private detective that initially shunned Mary digs into the case and finds some information. He finds out that Jacqueline has given her beauty company “as an out-right gift” to the manager of the place, a woman, Mrs. Redi, who told her earlier that she was sold the company. They decide to search the premises, particularly a back room that the detective could not enter when snooping around the place. Mary and the man break into the place at night and Mary bullies the small man, who is scared, into entering the room at the end of a long dark hallway. The man picks the lock and enters. He exits quickly, in a zombie-like state then drops dead apparently with a stab wound to his stomach. Mary runs from the place and takes the subway home. While on the subway, she’s deep in thought and rides the A train all the way through a few times. Back on 14th street, a pair of men drag a third on the train. It first appears that the middle man is drunk. Then his head flops back to reveal that it’s the dead private dick. She changes train cars and gets the ticket-taker to come back to the compartment and help capture the men. Of course, when she returns, the men and the body are gone. Did she dream it?

Mary and Jacqueline search the papers but find no stories on the dead man in the paper. Ward gets Mary a job as a kindergarten teacher. Later in the day, Ward meets with creepy psychiatrist Dr. Judd who admits that she’s keeping Jacqueline for the last few days to keep her out of danger and that he needs money to take care of her. The husband, who doesn’t seem very shocked or outraged that his wife is being kept by the doctor (maybe because Mary and him are loosing interest in the case). He refuses to give him money, but eventually gives him about 45 bucks from his wallet. Dr. Judd, who now possibly realizing that he won’t get more money for her, visits Mary and offers to return Jacqueline to her. They go to the Doctor’s house. Jacqueline isn’t there which prompts the doctor to rush out looking for her. The second he leaves there’s a knock on the door and it’s Jacqueline! Jacqueline looks around and puts her finger to her lips to shush her and shuts the door. Mary opens it and she’s gone. Apparently she spotted the detectives hiding in the doctor’s quarters.

Later at the restaurant, Mary and Gregory have lunch where they’re introduced to a failed poet. The old woman running the place decides that the man may help in cheering up young Mary. She brings him to the table just as Gregory admits that he wants to find his wife to settle things. What things? We don’t find out because that’s when the poet decides to sit with them. Gregory looks at Jason like a jealous woman. The poet, Jason, knows of Jacqueline and decides to help them find her.

They go to a party and meet up with Dr. Judd. The poet confronts the doctor pleading with him to please tell them where she is. A woman at the party, who admits to being "intimate" with Jacqueline at one time, states that one Jacqueline met up with Judd she was "taken out of circulation". This induces some hard glances from Gregory Ward.

Poet Jason goes to the library to see what books Mrs. Reddi and Dr. Judd have been checking out. Turns out they have both checked out books on the occult. Jason finds a figure that ends up being a satanic symbol in one of the books. He tells Mary, who seems even more disinterested in the case. Jason talks her into going back to the beauty company to ask questions. The symbol is also the new logo for the beauty company. (Would a secret devil-worshipping society print their logo on merchandise for a beauty salon?) Mrs. Reddi is furious when she finds out that hairstylist Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell) talked. “You fool! That symbol is about us! She was asking about us!”

The next scene I have no doubt influenced Psycho. Mary takes a shower in her room and a woman enters. Can you be more vulnerable than being naked in the shower? Mrs. Redi, seen only as a shadow on the shower curtain, warns Mary to leave town and that her sister is a murder -she apparently was the one who stabbed the private detective earlier. The shadow cast on the shower curtain shows the woman wearing a hat to appear to have horns, a clear reference to the devil.

The next scene is a very civilized devil worship meeting. It reminds me of the devil-worshiping group from Rosemary’s Baby. The meeting reveals that Mrs. Redi, some of the earlier party goers, and Frances are all part of the group. They state that they are non-violent but something must be done about Jacqueline. They decide to kidnap her and have her kill herself. According to the group's history, there have been six betrayals and six deaths as punishment. Alas, she will be the seventh victim. They consider her going to a psychiatrist as the betrayal.

Mary, meanwhile, begins packing her bags. She visits Jason in his one room apartment (with an amazing view. The room today would go for a fortune in NYC). Mary tells Jason that she's leaving. Jason calls Gregory and it’s decided that Jacqueline must be found, if only so she can give herself up to the police (again, this husband and Mary really doesn’t seem to care about Jacqueline at all.)

Judd decides to give up Jacqueline’s location this time because he's told about her being a murderess. Jacqueline, apparently in shock, tells them about her ordeal with the satanic group. She joined the group only for a sense of excitement. When she attempted to quit the group they wanted her to kill herself. They locked her up for a long time in the back room of the beauty company. She escaped only after Mary and the private detective broke in and unlocked the door. She admits to killing the man and escaping.

Mary and Gregory leave Jacqueline alone (again, do they really care about this woman?) and Jacqueline disappears again! Mary goes to work and sings a scary song to her kindergarten students: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed… here comes a chopper to chop off your head." I’m sure the kids grew up to be maniacs.

The cult leaders, lead by Ben Bard, sit Jacqueline down and try to talk her into drinking poison. They surround her and pressure her to drink. The daylight outside the room goes dark and she’s still sitting there. Jacqueline decides that this is not her time to die, so they, being non-violent, release her. As she walks through the dark streets alone she is stalked by a man with a switch blade who steps out of the shadows like Harry Lime in The Third Man. She manages to escape him and rushes towards Mary’s apartment. Instead, the woman who has escaped death twice in the evening meets up with neighbor Mimi in the hallway. Here’s the dialog from the scene:

Who are you?

I'm Mimi -- I'm dying.


Yes. It's been quiet, oh ever so
quiet. I hardly move, yet it keeps
coming all the time -—closer and
closer. I rest and rest and yet I
am dying.

And you don't want to die. I've
always wanted to die -- always.

I'm afraid.

Jacqueline shakes her head.

I'm tired of being afraid -— of

Why wait?

(with sudden
I'm not going to wait. I'm going
out -- laugh, dance --do all the
things I used to do.

And then?

I don't know.

(very softly end almost
with envy)
You will die.

(audio of the scene here)

But Mimi has already turned back into her room. Jacqueline stands watching until the light snaps on in Mimi's room and then the door closing, plunges the hall into weird half light again. In this semi-darkness, she turns away from Mary's door and walks down the hall toward room #7. She opens the door and goes in. For a brief moment the light from the hall casts the shadow of a noose against the further wall of the room and then the door closes behind her.

Judd and Jason find the devil worshipers location and find out that Jacqueline has been released. They recite the Lord’s Prayer to them and the members crumble. Apparently this is a concession made by the filmmakers.

In Mary’s apartment where Jacqueline almost just entered, Jason and Mary standing in the dark looking out the window, admit that they love each other not knowing the horrible act about to happen next door.

The last image in the film is outside in the hallway. Sick Mimi walking down the stairs dressed for an evening out while you hear the sound of Jacqueline hanging herself behind the door.

"I run to death and death meets me as fast. And all my pleasures are like yesterday."

Written by Steve-O

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Big Sleep (1946)

Musings On Some Thoughts By David Thomson

Posted by Don Malcolm

We still don’t know how much torment and difficulty accompanied the process that created The Big Sleep, despite the evidence contained in the 1945 version unearthed several years ago. We’ve learned of the careful stitching of existing and new footage that resulted in the “delightfully incoherent” final version, but we don’t know how much actual time and trouble it took to get there.

What is clear, however, is that director Howard Hawks transformed the character of Philip Marlowe into a trench-coated version of his ideal fantasy self, moving the character away from Chandler’s nostalgic moral center toward something more modern. This could be the very reason why for many of us, Hawks’ version of Marlowe and The Big Sleep is still so comfortable a vision, the smoothest and most serpentine of noir experiences.

As David Thomson notes in his BFI Film Classic volume on the film, Hawks achieves this triumphant “dream-sense” for Marlowe by positioning him in a world where he is literally drowning in sexual opportunity. Only in the Hollywood “dream factory” was it possible to generate such a sustained sense of foreplay, a seemingly endless prelude to a never-ending sexual nirvana. As Thomson notes, Hawks encouraged his actresses—both lead and bit players—to behave in a very specific, specified manner, accentuating allure and availability. It was not necessarily an attribute that the actresses possessed in real life, as Hawks’ anecdote about Martha Vickers (the most extreme of the film’s “little bitches”) demonstrates. Quoting from Thomson:

”Okay, she got her first salary check and went out and bought a lot of girly dresses with a lot of…little bows and ruffles and…she started playing a nice girl and they fired her after six months. And she came to me and said ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘You’re just stupid. Why didn’t you just keep playing that part?’ ‘Well, that was a nymphomaniac.’ ‘Look, it’s only a nymphomaniac because I told you so. They liked you on the screen. And you did such a good job of it because you weren’t trying to get sympathy or anything. You were a little bitch. Why didn’t you keep doing that?”

And it’s clear that, in one large sense, Hawks is more interested in sustaining this fantasy world throughout the course of The Big Sleep. From the two available versions we have, the parade of available “talent” in which Marlowe is swimming was a fixture in the film no matter how the rest of the film’s landscape may have been altered.

Thomson does us the service of chronicling all of these encounters, pointing out that the film “has variants on the little bitch” that operate “like reel markers”:

—there is the blonde in the library (not in [Chandler’s] book), the one to whom Marlowe tosses the line that he collects blondes and bottles—the actress is Carole Douglas.

—There is Agnes Lozelle [actually Lowzier—Thomson has this wrong], in Geiger’s shop, dumb on books but hip with grapefruit, and later the dreamgirl for Joe Brody and Harry Jones, both of whom (if you’ll pardon the remark) are too small for her. Indeed, Marlowe has her sized up and knows how to whip her with words—he understands the b###h, and she looks at him with the bruised gratitude of someone who knows she’s been understood. Whatever happened to Sonia Darrin, who played Agnes?

—Then there’s the girl at the Acme bookshop, the 20-year-old Dorothy Malone, who knows bibiliography, has the instinct to close for the afternoon, and who is, shall we say, obliging enough to slip off her glasses and put down her hair. ‘We just did it,’ reminisced Hawks, ‘because the girl was so damn good-looking.’

—Don’t forget the lady taxi-driver (Joy Barlowe), who’ll follow anything for Marlowe and gives him her card, making sure he knows when she’s off duty. ‘Wouldn’t be bad,’ he tells her, always the expert.

—Then there’s the hatcheck girl (Lorraine Miller) and the cigarette girl (Shelby Payne) at Eddie Mars’ place, who step on each others’ lines trying to be the first to talk to Marlowe.

—And finally there’s Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen) whom Marlowe admits to liking after goading her into throwing a drink in his face.

Given all this action, it’s actually a wonder that Marlowe has time to solve the case—a situation that ultimately comes down to the fact that the biggest “little b###h” in the film (Carmen Sternwood) is the lethal cautionary tale lurking in the midst of these anecdotes of availability. Maybe the most interesting tidbit Thomson provides us in his volume is some hearsay from Chandler (in a letter to Hamish Hamilton, his British publisher) about an alternative ending to the film that more prominently features Carmen and her, as we say nowadays, “issues”:

Chandler even reports that Hawks considered an ending that involved Marlowe and Carmen. According to Chandler, Hawks was often dissatisfied with the script. In their subsequent talks they worked out this ending: Marlowe and Carmen go to Geiger’s house at the end; by now, he knows that she is [Regan’s] killer; he also knows that the first person out the door is going to get shot by Mars’ men. This Marlowe wasn’t sure how to act, so he tossed a coin:

“Before he tossed the coin he prayed out loud, in a sort of way. The gist of his prayer was that he, Marlowe, had done the best he knew how and through no fault of his own was put in a position of making a decision God had no right to force him to make… If the coin came down heads, he would let the girl go. He tossed it and it came down heads. The girl thought this was some kind of a game to hold her there for the police. She started to leave. At the last moment, as she had her hand on the doorknob, Marlowe weakened and started for her to stop her. She laughed in his face and pulled a gun on him. Then she opened the door and inch or two and you could see that she was going to shoot and was thoroughly delighted with the situation. At that moment a burst of machine gun fire walked across the panel of the door and tore her to pieces.”

Perhaps the problem with this ending is that it doesn’t show Marlowe as the invincible, always-in-control hero. There are only bare hints in the actual ending that Marlowe is even breaking a sweat as he pieces together that Mars is willing to kill him in order to protect the secret of who really killed Sean Regan. However, making Marlowe more vulnerable might have been a small price to pay in order to have “the little bitch” receive her ultimate comeuppance. The film finally settles for its Bogart-Bacall romantic myth, and a pale variant of the Chandler-Hawks final scene; this preserves the comfort level that audiences respond to in the film, where fantasy and authority are seamlessly woven together in an endless parade of one-liners and available flesh. By doing so, The Big Sleep almost inadvertently creates the framework for the “post-modern” film landscape. As Thomson concludes: “[It] inaugurates a post-modern, camp, satirical view of movies being about other movies that extends to the New Wave and to Pulp Fiction. In that sense, it breaks new ground while sensing the ultimate dead end of the form.”

Postscript: Shelia O’Malley’s tale about Martha Vickers and the filming of The Big Sleep
…here's a story about Martha Vickers, the teenage actress who so convincingly played a drugged-out thumb-sucking nymphomaniac.

Hawks had an idea for one of the scenes—where Marlowe comes in, and finds her sitting, all dressed up in the empty house—obviously some kind of lecherous photo shoot had been going on. And Marlowe comes upon her, and she is high on drugs, and completely out of it. Anyway, Hawks had an idea for this scene (which ended up not making it into the movie): he wanted Vickers to simulate an orgasm.

He asked her to do so. This is in front of Bogart, Regis Toomey (who plays the DA), and a couple of other people.

"Sweetheart, what we want here is for you to simulate that you're having an orgasm."

Martha Vickers asked, "What's an orgasm?"

Nobody spoke. Nobody knew what to do. Literally. These three men, Hawks, Bogart, and Toomey—standing there with a teenage actress—asking them what an orgasm was. Dead silence. Hawks called a 10-minute break, and called Toomey aside. He asked Toomey to please go and explain to "Miss Vickers" what an orgasm was.

Toomey, who apparently was a good-natured fellow, but also the product of a strict Irish Catholic upbringing (so funny to imagine!!), went over to Martha and explained it to her. (Wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that one.)

Toomey said later to Bogart, "The girl didn't know anything. I asked, 'Are you a virgin?' 'Uh yes.' 'Do you know what an orgasm is? Mr. Hawks wants you to be having an orgasm here.' 'No, I don't know what it is.' 'You don't know what an orgasm is?' 'No.' And so, dammit, I explained to her what an orgasm was. And she got the idea all right. Howard liked the scene very much."

After that, it became a huge joke. Hawks would say to Toomey, "If I ever have to explain an orgasm again, I am calling on you." And Bogie would laugh and laugh like a madman.

For some reason I just love that story.

(O’Malley gets one fact wrong here—Toomey played a police detective pal of Marlowe’s, not the DA.)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Jeopardy (1953)

Most film noirs are cast in darkness and shadows. But one of the intriguing distinctions of this 67-minute minor MGM gem is that its primary action takes place outdoors in the brightest sunshine imaginable. Other than a nighttime scene in Tijuana that is nothing more than a setup to the story that follows, there is nothing dark about this movie at all … except, of course, the moral questions director John Sturges presents.

An All-American Fifties family, the Stilwins - dad Barry Sullivan, mom Barbara Stanwyck and young lad Lee Aaker (known to all kids of the era as Rusty in the Rin Tin Tin series) - embark on a vacation into wholly desolate Baja California and a remote, deserted fishing spot along the coast Dad used to frequent with his old military buddies. At a roadside barricade heading into the serious Baja outback, they are inspected by police but aren’t told about a deranged killer who has escaped from prison and is at large in the area. Dad Stilwin announces to the family in a bit of classic American 50’s cinematic stereotyping that they’re probably looking for "a goat or a cow or something. Mexicans have a way of taking things big."

Hey, at least he gets paid back for that racist crack. Upon arrival at the secret fishing spot, young Bobby goes exploring out onto a rotting pier. He can’t work his way back, and when Dad attempts to come to his son’s rescue, the pier gives way. Dad isn’t hurt, but a piling falls on his leg and traps him on the beach just as the tide is coming in. The Stilwins quickly determine that if Pop isn’t freed within a few hours, he will drown in the rising surf.

Then the movie kicks in - Mother Stanwyck, half-hysterical with fright, must work against the clock on her own in the Baja wilderness to go get help. Naturally, she knows no Spanish so when she encounters some passive villagers, she can’t convince them what she needs. She returns to a roadside gas-and-water stop - no 7-11s here, folks -- the family had encountered on the way, finds no one and breaks into the garage, looking for a rope and other materials. Looking out through the window she broke to get in - a great, eerie, noirish shot by Sturges, by the way -- she spots a man standing near her car. And my god, he’s an American!

It turns out to be the escaped con played by Ralph Meeker, but not the sullen Mike Hammer Meeker of noir lore. This is a goofy, grinning, self-absorbed maniac who, with help from Barb, drives the film to a pulsating finish. He immediately jumps behind the wheel and promises to help, but gives himself away immediately by consuming some crackers in the front seat and asking if there’s anything else to eat. He pops open the glove compartment and admires a pistol Hubby has brought across the border. When Barb starts telling her tale of desperation, he announces, "Stop, lady! You’ll have me cryin’. I’m a very sens-i-tive man." She slaps him, and he slaps her back three times.

Great stuff. In short, in about 30 seconds, Meeker completely takes over the movie and takes us on a wild ride for the next 30 minutes. Pretty neat, huh? That’s Meeker’s stock line whenever he does something he thinks is clever, like turning a rock into a makeshift jack or running some Mexican police off the road. Ultimately, he decides Barb is a pretty hot dish (he picks her up at one point when she tries to run off and pronounces, "You’re just the right weight!") about the same time she decides the only way she’s going to get this lunatic to help is to submit sexually and promise to go away with him … after they go rescue hubby and get his clothes and ID. She tells him she’ll do anything to save her husband … ANYTHING. Wink, wink, hint, hint. Even the dullard character Meeker plays gets it.

Hiding out in an abandoned house, Stanwyck makes what was probably her last real play as a movie sexpot. She pulls a cig out of Meeker’s hunk-shirt, leans seductively against the getaway car, blows some smoke into the air and it’s on. Aroused Ralph makes a great crack about cheap perfume and pounces on her as the camera cuts away … it must have been satisfying, though, because the next thing you know Meeker and Stanwyck are speeding up to the beach, where the final scene is played out. I won’t tell much more except to point out the rather unusual ending - Meeker is actually allowed to escape with Barb’s semi-reluctant blessing, a fascinating finish to what starts out as a mundane programmer. Not too many psychopath killers get away in Dark City, or in this case, Dark Wilderness, so that’s another piece of intrigue to this one.

The escape comes with our blessing, too, as it turns out, because Meeker is simply too impishly delightful and ultimately just heroic enough not to be killed off. I picked this film primarily for Ralph’s performance in this role, sadly his only other true noteworthy noir performance other than the classic Kiss Me Deadly (although I must admit, I haven’t seen the B flicks Big House USA or Code Two). What a loss. Meeker clearly was a wonderful actor - he picked up where Brando left off on Broadway in Streetcar Named Desire. When Picnic opened as a stage play, he was the original lead in the role William Holden landed in the movie version. He turned in excellent performances in Naked Spur, Path of Glory, Run of the Arrow and the quirky cult flick Something Wild.

And of course, the eternal Kiss Me Deadly. Why Meeker never became a big-time star is a mystery. He had the looks, the acting chops, the charisma. He had a nice, long career in film, stage and TV but most people, even some self-anointed film buffs, couldn’t tell you who he was today. Check out the online Meeker Museum for more cool info on him:

"Jeopardy" itself is hardly a classic but has more going for it than it seems upon first watch. It plays like a B but has front-rank people both in front of and behind the camera. Dimitri Tiomkin, for one, provides an ace score. The location scenes in Baja are stark and genuinely creepy at times, even in the rear-projection shots. This is a place you would not want to break down … ever. Stanwyck is solid in what would be a string of noirs during this period of her career (Thelma Jordon, Clash by Night, Crime of Passion and No Man of Her Own). She was 46 when this movie was made, but like Joan Crawford, still could crank up her seductive juices when necessary and convince you she could still do ANYTHING to save her husband.

Sullivan is along for the ride here. His scenes with the son while Barb is out on the hunt for help provide some good camp, if nothing else. At one point the boy asks, "Can I get you your cigarettes, Dad?" and when he runs off, Sullivan yells, "And bring my lighter, too!" The kid also tries to make a pot of Dad’s favorite coffee while he’s get lambasted by the surf. Hilarious.

But this is Meeker’s show with strong support from Stanwyck. It’s not available on video but shows up regularly on TCM. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss it next time. And those who have had the pleasure, you must confess: Pretty neat, huh? And no, in this "Jeopardy," Alex Trebek never turns up once along the barren roadside.


Written by Carl

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